Interviewing Dr Meah in IRRI office

Nafees Meah I Working towards healthy diets

By: Staff Reporter
G’nY talks with Nafees Meah, Regional Representative, International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) to solicit his views on issues pertaining to India’s food production, the impact of climate change and possible policy interventions.

Fortification of staple crops especially with iron and zinc offers an interim solution. In the longer term people need to adopt wholesome eating habits.

G’nY. In your view, what challenge does climate uncertainty pose to food production? According to the 2019 report on World Population Prospects by the United Nations, global population will grow from 7.7 billion in 2019 to 8.5 billion in 2030 and reach 9.7 billion in 2050. India’s population is expected to increase to 1.6 billion by 2050. There is, therefore, a need to substantially increase food production to keep pace with the foreseeable demand. However, the possible impact of climate change on agriculture must be considered before envisaging any new measures. A significant amount of work has been done by experts on this front, in particular on projections of major crop yields and production such as for rice, wheat, maize etc. However, some studies show a significant reduction in production of major crops and small increases in others in certain regions of the world. These studies combine outputs from crop models with global climate models owing to which these projections remain uncertain. Still, what we can confidently state is that global warming will precipitate extreme weather events. In fact, we are already experiencing the effects of these in India and the South Asian region—severe floods in Bihar, Assam and Nepal and a cyclone (Fani) in coastal Odisha were all recently witnessed. In 2017, Sri Lanka experienced its worst drought in 37 years and this was followed by heavy floods in many areas. As this adversely affected the crops, the country was forced to import 0.7 million tonne of milled rice that constituted nearly a quarter of its annual rice consumption. Hence, sustainable intensification and building climate resilient food systems is imperative if we are to meet the increasing demand for food. At the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), we are developing a suite of climate smart agricultural practices for rice-based agri-food systems. This includes development and dissemination of submergence, salinity and heat tolerant rice varieties; application of information and communication technology (ICT) to optimise multi-cropping systems; application of inputs for specific ecologies and weather patterns and implementation of water management systems to substantially reduce water needed for rice production.

G’nY. Obesity and related diseases are emerging as one of the greatest global concerns. What do you think this would mean for developing countries such as India?
While reading a 2016 report regarding rising obesity in children in China, published by the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, I came across some staggering figures. In the Shandong province, obesity rate in boys had increased from 0.03 per cent to 17.2 per cent and for girls the rate had increased from 0.1 per cent to 9.1 per cent between 1985 and 2014. Such statistics are associated with dietary transition from a largely plant-based one to a diet rich in meat, fats, sugars and ultra processed food. It is critical that India and other developing countries do not follow the same trajectory and avoid the major public health problems issuing from the absence of government interventions. If timely action is not taken, the health crisis in India can assume a massive scale, given the size of its population. We should, therefore, seize this as an opportunity to design effective interventions pertaining to food systems. In absolute numbers, India had the second highest number of obese children in 2015 as per a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2017. At the same time, India is witnessing a triple burden of malnutrition which consists of over-nutrition, under-nutrition and micronutrient deficiency. Under-nutrition in the country is associated with poverty and problem in accessing food. In fact, it is chiefly responsible for causing stunting in children under five years of age in different states of India. The current nutrition statistics given by National Institution for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog indicate that Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand have the highest percentage of stunted children, with their share exceeding 45 per cent. This problem can be addressed with economic development and improvement in the delivery of social safety net measures. As regards overnutrition, the fourth National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) revealed a rapid increase in overweight and obesity rates in a number of Indian states, particularly in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Goa. Moreover, this trend is no longer restricted to urban India as rural areas are also steadily being affected. Action is urgently needed to educate people on the importance of healthy eating.Fortification of staple crops

G’nY. What are your views on food fortification and do you think this offers a solution to micronutrient malnutrition?
As already mentioned, micronutrient deficiency is one aspect of the problem of triple burden of malnutrition. I recently attended a conference on POSHAN Abhiyaan in Bhopal where it was mentioned that Madhya Pradesh is more than self-sufficient in rice, wheat, fruit and vegetable production. Despite this, micronutrient malnutrition poses a huge challenge for the state. This was evidenced as high levels of anaemia in women which according to NFHS-4 affected 51.8 per cent of women aged between 15 and 49 years. To my knowledge, the problem has less to do with availability of food and is more a result of poor access and affordability. Fortification or bio-fortification of staple crops, especially with iron and zinc, offers an interim solution. In the longer term, people need to be urged to adopt wholesome eating habits. Hence, fruits and vegetables need to be made affordable for all classes. The Indian government has recently approved a pilot scheme for the fortification of rice and its distribution through the public distribution system (PDS) on February 14, 2019. I consider this to be a welcome development on the food and nutrition front.Fortification of staple crops

G’nY. As rice is a water-intensive crop, what bearing could extreme weather phenomena have on rice production?
Firstly, I think one needs to clarify what is meant by rice being a water-intensive crop. It is generally understood that rice requires 3,000-5,000 litres of water to produce 1 kg of paddy. However, it would be more accurate to say that farmers use 3,000-5,000 l of water to harvest 1 kg of paddy simply because that is what they have always followed. The difference between the amount of water used and required serves as an opportunity to check the water footprint of rice production. In the wake of climate change, this is a crucial step. Substantial research has been undertaken to improve drought tolerance in rice. The most common solution has been to reduce the time taken to grow crops. Most of the drought-tolerant rice varieties that have been developed have a shorter growth span and require less than 120 days. Additionally, rice can also be grown by employing one-third of the irrigation water used in a conventional surface irrigation system. With micro-irrigation, water requirement can drop to 500-600 l per one kg of paddy. At IRRI, we have developed a number of simple agronomic practices that can be readily used by farmers to significantly reduce water for rice production. In fact, the alternate wetting and drying (AWD) technique is currently being tested extensively in regions of India and South Asia.

G’nY. What policy interventions do you think are required towards the zero hunger goal?
The targets set out in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals 2 (SDG2) entail some obvious policy interventions. The first SDG2 target states the importance of ensuring access of all people to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round. This would imply including fruits and vegetables in the PDS and minimum support price (MSP) mechanisms to improve nutritional levels in the population, especially among the poorer sections of the society. Policies need to be designed to increase fruit and vegetable consumption for this segment through increased access and affordability in markets. Suitable policies should also be developed to tackle the issue of extreme volatility of price. Thus, policies promoting cold chains throughout the country could address some of the issues pertaining to price volatility.Fortification of staple crops

G’nY. What in your view are the three most important food and agricultural policies that India should try and implement?
Firstly, developing an array of policies to deter consumption of food high in fats and sugar and those which are highly processed ought to be the single most important objective. This would necessitate organising public information campaigns on healthy diets, working with industry and retailers to promote nutrient-dense food and introducing disincentives wherever necessary. Being largely lacto-vegetarian may give India an edge over other countries. However, the fact that obesity rates are on a rise suggests that this in itself is not a precondition for a healthy dietary pattern. Secondly, with respect to agriculture, environmental influences need to be given greater consideration while designing policies. For instance, groundwater extraction rates in India are the highest in the world and the practice is not sustainable in the long run. Policies encouraging sustainable intensification of agriculture through climate smart practices are the need of the hour. Moreover, such policies should be mindful of the ecological balance and must work towards reducing the contribution of greenhouse gas emissions. Finally, as most farmers in India are smallholders—and will continue to be so in the foreseeable future—policies must restructure value chains to increase returns to farmers. IRRI South Asia Regional Centre (I-SARC) is working on improving heirloom varieties of rice which would fetch premium prices for farmers.

Further Reading:

An open access account of climate refugees in the Sunderban- Click here.

SaGHAA  aims to encourage a higher degree of cooperation and collaboration in cross border scientific programmes among like minded research group/institutions for sharing for the benefit of common and collective knowledge.

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